On April 6th, 2006, my brother-in-law, John s, and two other Ski Patrollers died after falling into a volcanic vent, while they were trying to fence off the area, securing the slope for the day’s skiers. Since that day, my family has struggled with what we believe about life, its purpose, and death. Scottie, as my brother-in-law was affectionately known, had at 37, seemingly found his stride, had been voted rookie of the year, in this, his first year as a patroller. Why now? Along with that question come others. Couldn’t this have been prevented? Is someone at fault? How would Scottie want us to cope?
A few nights ago, sitting on the floor of my son’s room, I had begun working on the hopelessly tangled rigging of my son’s most prized clipper ship model. He had played too roughly with it and shed tears at the result. While his mother read to him and his younger sister on the bed, my fingers slowly worked at the mass of string and hooks. I could see clearly there was no chance for restoration, so I let my mind wander to Scottie, while my fingers worked absently, steadily.
So many simple things I will miss: Scottie’s pauses in the middle of conversations, pushing his glasses higher on his nose, eyes shifting away self-consciously until the thought in his mind completed itself, ready for words; the way he said “boot” with his west coast mountain accent; his sudden clarion laughter; the stubble and scent of his cheek when we hugged.
Indulging these memories ushers in a torrent of pain, stabbing, suffocating. Disoriented by the jungle of emotions, I feel hopeless.
My mind rushes to other facts, specific to the last moments of Scottie’s life. He was with James, Walter, and Jeff, fellow patrollers and men he loved, at a mountain he loved, doing work he loved. First Walter, then other patrollers, realizing instantly after Scottie and James fell through the collapsing snow pack that the danger wasn’t the fall (only 20 feet or so) but the pooling gasses in that cavern, grabbed oxygen bottles and masks, insufficient for rescue but the best equipment on site, plunged into the cavern—Walter losing his life, the others miraculously surviving. I have since memorized their faces from newspaper photographs.
In the weeks that have followed, more people, in other places far from Mammoth, far from me, have died unexpectedly, tragically. I think about their last moments; I think how I believe I would like to live such moments. I realize, sitting on the floor of my son’s room, my fingers sorting through the rigging, that Scottie, James, Walter and Jeff have shown me how I should live, not just last moments, but all moments. Holding my son’s ship in my hands, I have only managed to connect a few hooks, set a couple of sails, when he rouses suddenly from his patient watch upon his bed. “Dad, the ship looks so much better than it ever did before!” And just as suddenly, I believe him.
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